Wednesday, 10 April 2019

I aten't dead...

...just incredibly burnt out from the PhD and the consequences of completely neglecting my health during it. 

In my case 'burnt out' means 'wanting to do nothing but chew through books, hoarding information like a library-dwelling goblin.' Which is very fortunate, since I'm one of the Eccles Centre's writers at the British Library this year, and information-hoarding is exactly what I need to be doing. The project I'm working on is about the American Eugenics movement and involuntary sterilisation in the 20th century which, while being incredibly interesting from an information-hoarding goblin viewpoint, regularly leaves me speechless with grief. Every time I think I've found the nadir of human nature, it up and surprises me.

Given the gravity of the topics I'm exploring, I'm hesitant to write about them casually. The words will come in their own time, and until they do I'm content to just bear witness.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018


Every seven years, or so I've been told, the body renews itself. Of course, this is technically a myth. Your stomach lining renews itself every five days, while the lenses of your eyes and enamel of your teeth are with you from before birth. But in the main, if you dismiss the outliers, the body in which you now live, and move, and have your being is not the same one in which you lived seven years ago, not exactly.

The idea might stick around so easily because it chimes with the idea of the climacterics, the turning points in a life. The first comes in the seventh year; the rest are all multiples of seven. Unless they're multiples of nine; as with cells, not everyone agrees on the distance between turning points. Regardless of their frequency, a climacteric marks a dramatic change from one type of life, from one approach to life, to another, or so Plato and Cicero and Boethius all believed. The body you move around in is not the same body you moved around in seven years ago, and neither is the life through which that body moves.

Seven years ago I was living on the Eastern Shore, working in a wine shop and trying to write a book that would eventually become The Shore. I'd spent the previous school year in England and already knew I had to go back. We had no internet, no phone, so once a week I collected fat airmail envelopes from the post office, read the letters and responded to them in instalments. David had never written letters before. His handwriting looked a bit like you'd expect from a doctor with serial killer tendencies, or a serial killer with medical aspirations.  Some weeks they were the only human contact I had.

Some things are the same. That summer I searched the hedges for wild raspberries, lay on the dock and dipped crabs out of the creeks, paddled out into the marshes to pick mussels and picked up the potatoes left in the corners of the fields after harvest. Now I drag Dave out to scavenge blackberries from the hedgerows, hunt damsons, make wine. Back then I couldn't imagine the life I have now, the same way I can't now imagine going back to America. I miss the Shore, and I miss my family, but I don't know how I'd even begin making a life there.

That summer, I wasn't sure I'd finish my degree. Since then, I've finished two more. I wasn't sure I'd finish the book. I wasn't sure, when I'd been alone with the marsh and my own thoughts for weeks at a time, whether I would ever regain the ability to step into the human world, to speak aloud when I wanted to be spilling the words in ink, because you only get so many words in a day and why waste them on the air when you can fix them to the page?

It could be that it's the blackberries that makes me think about that time. Summer is its own universe. They link together, so that when I stand in a pool of sun in my garden in England I can close my eyes and feel the Virginia sun, be seven years old, or fourteen, or twenty-one. Writing has a similar property: when you're sunk beneath the surface of a work, slowly letting it drown you while you tinker with its moving parts, it's like every other time you've been under, like you've never left that word-sea.

Or maybe it's just the sevens: I have both a new body and a new life, both different from their previous iterations in major ways and yet possessed of a few comforting similarities. New body, new life, but doing the exact same thing I was doing seven years ago.

Of course, this all begs the question: what will I be doing seven years from now?

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Notes in no specific order

1) Following graduation there is generally a period of internal disturbance during which the subject mopes, wonders what they've done with the last three (five, seven, twelve) years of their life, wonders what the point of life is at all, and generally does nothing useful. The length of this mope generally correlates to how pressing it is that they find a job. If they already have a job, the mope may continue indefinitely. If they are self-employed, the mope may be synchronous with the bare minimum of work.

B) If writing is a burrow (to borrow Margaret Atwood's description) then revision is an oubliette. A burrow can imaginably be made to be comfortable and homey; the point of an oubliette is to be as unpleasant as it is impossible to get out of. In Beatrix Potter guests are frequently hosted to tea in burrows. The nicest thing that's ever happened in an oubliette, as far as I know, is Jennifer Connelly getting out of one.

III) 50% of revision is trying to move plot points which are contingent on historical events without causing an anachronism. Another 50% is being cranky about it. 

Still another 50% is coming to hate the work enough that you're willing to delete anything, because that's the state that is required by an effective revision. 

Դ) Every book I've read and class I've been in (and taught) has emphasised the fact that the worst thing a body can do to a piece of writing is start polishing up the sentences too early; work has to stay in a semi-fluid state, where everything is up for debate, until there's a clear idea of what final shape it will settle into. Unfortunately, bringing an extract to a supervisor once a month meant that everything I've written since 2013 had to be pretty immediately polished up. Which means that I have to go back and crack the gloss so that parts can be moved around and a working shape can be made. 

At least I've learned one way not to write a novel, and so will be saved ever using it again.

⠑) Revision is finally less depressing than keeping abreast of world events, and this book is pretty grim in places.

䷇) The fact checking list includes: Brown v. Board of Education, 1980s moral panics, Eloquentia Perfecta, Eucharistic Discipline, Women's Rights, the Pro-Life Movement, Georgetown University's student newspaper, Watergate, the oil embargo, and the etymology of the word 'dork'. 

...---...) It could be worse. I could be doing my taxes.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

American Publication Day (was yesterday)!

Yesterday, The Lauras was released in the United States. It looks like this:

If I had favourite covers, this would probably be it.

Normally, publication day makes me anxious. Abnormally, my brother and his wife are visiting, and by the time we got to the part of yesterday by which I had finally woken up and was able to form coherent thoughts we'd already begun mixing drinks and talking about existential terror and our absent siblings' bad life decisions, so I never quite got around to remembering until the time for anxiety had passed. It was both celebratory (despite my forgetting there was something to celebrate) and less reminiscent of than a reprise of how we spent high school.

Luckily, other people remembered what day it was, and other people have been reading the book in the lead up. Kirkus and The New York Journal of Books both reviewed it ahead of time, and Bookriot has included it in the month's must-read new releases. There are other reviews in other places, and probably many that I've forgotten about or just missed. To my great joy, most of the reviewers seem to have 'got' Alex, and that was the biggest thing I'd crossed my fingers for. With any luck, the rest of the American reading public will also.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Last minute hustle

At the end of my viva I was told to sit tight until official notice came through telling me what to do next, and since the uni website said that all I had to do to graduate this summer was make the July 7th pass list, I figured sitting tight was what I'd do. Except sitting tight goes against my nature, and since I happened to be up in Norwich a few weeks ago I figured it wouldn't hurt to drop by the postgrad office and ask them when they thought my marching orders would be appearing. And it was a good thing I did, because the nice lady in the office told me that the deadline for submitting the final copy was actually the 12th of June, or two working days and a weekend from right then, but they were processing forms as fast as they could and with any luck I'd have the letter telling me what to do in time to actually do something about it.

The rub in all that lay in the fact that, while my examiners had told me exactly what changes they wanted me to make to the thesis - delete two sentences, reword a third sentence, and clean up the typos - they hadn't told me definitively if those were gentleman's agreement type corrections, or if they'd be putting them in the official writeup. The difference being that in the first instance I could go ahead and turn in the draft that I'd already corrected, while in the second instance someone would have to sign off on the fact that I'd done the corrections, adding a week or two to the process and putting me well past the hand-in date.

I hate gambling, but in the final analysis it seemed smarter to bet on the letter saying 'pass with no corrections.' At which point I found that the official binder of UEA theses needs a five-day run-up at this time of year. Which meant that I had to find someone else who could bind it overnight and get it to me in time for me to get it to the University before the deadline, still assuming that in all this the paperwork would be processed and I'd be allowed to submit it. Which meant that, rather than handing a pdf of the thesis to someone who knew how UEA likes theirs bound, I got to find someone in Leeds who could do it in a hurry, then weed through several versions of the University regulations trying to figure out exactly in which direction they wanted the spine lettering printed.

Digression: why is it that every time I've had to submit something that adheres to strict specifications - at university, to the border agency, to the taxman - those specifications are so imprecisely worded that, with the best will in the world, I always send in my work with no clue as to whether it actually meets the guidelines? The uni guidelines stated that the bound copy had to have the name of the degree for which it was submitted on the cover, but didn't say whether that meant 'PhD,' 'Doctor of Philosophy,' or 'Doctor of Philosophy in Creative and Critical Writing;' there were points in the documents where that phrase referred to all three terms.

On Friday the 9th I received the bound thesis: it was as black as my mood and the perfect density for bludgeoning. Much later on Friday (about six hours too late to phone up a printer if I'd waited for the official go-ahead) I received the letter that told me that I had passed without corrections, and all I had to do was turn in the bound copy that I fortuitously had. On Sunday  I went trudging back up to Norwich, because I've had the trains cancelled on me too often to trust them to be running on a day when I absolutely had to make it through. And on Monday I trudged from where I was staying in town to the Elizabeth Fry building to hand the damn thing over. At which point I found that the office where I was supposed to submit the thing was closed and locked for a school holiday.

Because of course the office is closed on the deadline that determines whether a person makes this year's graduation.

The panicking only lasted as long as it took me to find the staff member chilling in a meeting room two floors down on the off chance that someone wanted to bring in a thesis that day. Since she didn't pull out callipers to check the formatting I figured that any minor misreadings of the guidelines would be allowed to squeak by. But she also didn't give me a receipt, or any guarantee that someone else wouldn't catch an error and I'd have to do it over again. So it wasn't until I got another letter, the one that says, "the following candidate has satisfied the examiners for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy" with my name after it, that I stopped worrying.

So it looks like I'm really finished this time. And it looks like I'll be graduating next month.

And, for the life of me, I don't know how to feel about either of those things.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

It is finished

Last Thursday was my viva. About ten days before last Thursday I wound up in A&E at four in the morning where a very nice doctor told me that my stomach was staging a coup and I should give up caffeine and stress, which is exactly what a person with a crippling caffeine addiction wants to hear ten days before the meeting that passes judgement on the previous four years of their life. Real life can be the biggest hack.

Part of the stress came from having two people whose work I immensely enjoy and respect as examiners. It's usually a mistake to meet your heroes, but passing up the chance to have them read my work just because I was afraid they would prove mortal seemed silly, or at least it did last summer when I was filling in the paperwork. On the train up to Norwich I was pretty certain that they'd tell me to rewrite the entire thing - and on some level I wished that they would tell me to rewrite the entire thing, as coming back to it after three months made all the flaws painfully clear. 

I may have spent the hour before the actual viva sitting in a remote corner of the university campus quietly singing rounds, because singing is the best way to keep yourself from hyperventilating, keeling over, and missing whatever it is that's got you nervous. Or so I've been told.

When I turned up at the internal examiner's office door on Thursday afternoon they seemed positively friendly. 

And then they told me that I'd passed.

And then they told me that, more than finding the thing adequate, they'd actually enjoyed it.

And then it turned into a really interesting conversation about free speech and culture and religion and the limits of legal action and the capacity of fiction to address those things that can't be quantified but which nevertheless influence the tide of history. Philosophy and theory didn't even get a look-in, and no one asked about the books that I hadn't read. 

They didn't really give me corrections - two sentences to delete and some stray typos to correct - so I suppose the next thing to do is get the final, bound version to the university with all of its accompanying paperwork in time to be included on the next pass list, so I can graduate this summer with all of the people I know and like. And I suppose I should start looking for academic posts of a shape that I could fit myself to. And I should probably start thinking about writing another novel. And  now that the thesis is done it needs to be broken down into journal articles, or else built up into a monograph, so it can do someone else some good. And maybe one of these days I'll actually unpack.

But right now my brain is mush, and I've forgotten how to talk. So I'll probably work on peace negotiations with my stomach, and leave everything else 'til next week.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Staring down the viva

On Monday Belief finally got to the point that someone else could read it without me immediately dying of shame. So I sent it off to Lucy, only six months later than I originally intended to. It isn't a short book, and it certainly isn't a tidy book just yet, so there's no point eating my fingernails while watching my inbox for guidance on how to make it a tidy book. Which means there's nothing keeping me from prepping for my viva. And since I originally created this blog as a record of my stumblings through higher education, the whole thing would lack symmetry if I didn't record how I'm going to be doing that.

First off, 'viva' is short for 'viva voce,' which in this context is taken to mean 'defending with the living voice.' In the English system the doctoral candidate is usually orally examined on the thesis, and the examination is a factor in whether the candidate passes. In the case of UEA, the examination is performed by one member of the university, and one member from an external university, whose work is related to the subject of the thesis. I've been more than a little annoyed with my fellow Americans in the past couple of months because they can't seem to wrap their minds around this; they think the whole thing is a formality and the hard work was over when I handed in.

As far as prepping for the viva is concerned, the first thing I did was panic, because that's seemingly the first thing everyone does, and because everyone I asked who had already done it told me that the best prep was to pray, bargain, cry, and eat chocolate, which is realistic but not very helpful. The second thing I did was google around to see how people I don't know prepped for theirs, which was marginally more helpful.

The advice I found broke down into two basic categories: know your opponent, and know yourself. A bunch of them are common sense, but when you're panicking even common sense seems like black magic.

1) Hunt up the university's Examiner Report forms, and their guidelines for examiners. They'll outline exactly what constitutes a pass, a pass with corrections, a rewrite, a fail, and any other outcomes the school considers possible. That will let you skew your responses to questions so that they demonstrate your achievement of the benchmarks.

2) Find and read the examiners' work. Get a sense of what they are preoccupied with, what their views might be on your material, and how they build your arguments. In my case, discover that the external has written critical essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and immediately fangirl to hell and back.

3) Find out what's been published in your field since you stopped gathering material. In the same vein, make a list of what you left out of the thesis, or the literature review, and be able to defend why.

4) Put together a list of sample questions that might be asked, and start thinking about how you might answer them. There are scads of sample questions out there, all you need to do is Google. Which sounds dirty, out of context.

5) Review the actual thesis. Read the whole thing again. Put in flags to mark where chapter and section breaks are so you don't have to shuffle too much finding them. Highlight important quotes. Make a list of typos as you go through so that you can get right on to correcting them after the viva is over, and so you can strategically bring it out if typos come up in the meeting to let the examiners know that you're on top of them. Write a one-page summary of each chapter of the thesis. Look up how to pronounce words that you're not sure of, or the names of authors whose work you reference.

6) Consider what you're willing to defend to the death, and what's up for compromise. This is probably more dependant on what discipline you're in, and how subjective the work is.

7) Write down the questions that you want to ask the examiners, so you don't forget them on the day.

8) Figure out the practical concerns, such as how you're going to get there on the day.

And that seems to be all that one can realistically do. So I'm going to go off and do it.

And I'm going to eat chocolate while I'm doing it.